Since time immemorial if you asked an adolescent whether he expects to live a better life than his parents the definitive answer would have been negative. But then, at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, that answer changed to a resounding yes, as positive changes were seen all over the place. Sadly, however, the optimism that swept the industrializing world didn’t manage to reach everyone. Now that people lived longer and more prosperously, Thomas Malthus and his followers feared overpopulation as the impending doom of humanity. At the time of his writing, one billion humans lived on the planet. Today, more than two hundred years later, we are close to eight billion. Nonetheless, Malthusian pessimism lives on.
Much can be said about Thomas Malthus and his lack of knowledge of what would come in the future, for which he can be forgiven. After all, he was living at a time when the industrialization merely started to take off and the prosperity that resulted from it was not easily evident yet. The same cannot be said, though, about today’s proponents of the fear of The Population Bomb, as one of the most popular books in the post-war era put it. In the book, Paul Ehrlich presented a reiteration of the doom that would follow due to overpopulation in the coming decades.
But one of the many things he didn’t consider was that the more people live on this planet, the more resources were engaged in solving said problems. Or, as Julian Simon put it, rather than looking at newborns as more empty stomachs that need to be filled with food, we should look at them as new brains that can solve our problems, come up with new innovations, and, thus, make the world better. In Ehrlich’s defense, Julian Simon’s argument that the ultimate resource is the human mind was released more than a decade later.
Fears of overpopulation have hardly been the only predictions of future catastrophes in the last decades. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, we are supposed to have run out of oil on several occasions. At some point, we even ‘reached’ peak oil, and still, somehow the reserves miraculously kept on growing. Let’s not forget the Beepocalypse that was looming at our doorsteps back in 2006. It turns out, the population of “the most important being on Earth” has been on the rise ever since.
A new panic seems to wait around the corner at every point for modern society. Today’s biggest fear is over climate change. Greta Thunberg is making headlines left, right and center, as a successor of twelve-year-old Canadian Severn Cullis-Suzuki, who was in the news in 1992 for “fighting for her future.” Üoliticians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez argue that we only have twelve years more to live if we don’t address climate change.
Before we break out into another panic, however, we should remember the questionable track record of past panic attacks. For instance, Ehrlich predicted that “the battle to feed humanity is over. In the 1970s and 1980s, hundreds of millions of people will starve to death.” The world population has more than doubled in the fifty years since his book was published. The global absolute poverty rate dropped below the 10% threshold for the first time in 2018, far from the 35% of the time of the writing. The global life expectancy at birth has seen an increase of more than 15 years since. People are living far wealthier than their predecessors. They also live far longer.
A long time ago Hegel posited that “we learn from history that we do not learn from history.” In the midst of another wave of panic over our future, it is high time that we break this cycle and start learning from past failures of our fortune tellers.